Menlo Park anthropologist ponders 'center of centers'
By Marion Softky
Almanac Staff Writer
For Stanford archeologist John Rick, Chavin de Huantar is
much more than a sprawling temple complex and pilgrimage
center high in the Peruvian Andes.
Chavin is also a laboratory for learning about the roots of
religion, and how a cult of priests established powers that
influenced the growth of civilizations all over Peru two
millennia before the Incas.
After his seventh season excavating at Chavin, Dr. Rick, a
resident of Menlo Park, is more convinced than ever that the
U-shaped temples, the mysterious tunnels, the strombus
trumpets and mythical beasts, have something basic to tell us
about people and power.
"It was a power system. Chavin priests must have had
power to build those temples," he told the Stanford research
group in an evening lecture in July. "We find Chavin pottery
and stuff spreading all over Peru. Chavin is using these to get
labor and materials. I see it as a feedback system."
The name itself suggests the awe that ancient peoples must
have held for Chavin and its mysteries. According to the
Chavin Chamber of Tourism Web site, "Chavin" comes
from a Quechua word meaning "center of centers" _ "the
center of the universe as a magic and sacred place."
Dr. Rick's passion for Chavin has grown out of a long
association with Peru. He went there as a child with his
father, who was studying the genetics of tomatoes _ one of
the world's major foods that originated in Peru, as well as
potatoes, peanuts, and maybe corn.
In 1973, Dr. Rick started excavating in Peru. Before
Chavin, he led teams excavating caves in the Altiplano,
where early people lived almost entirely on vicuna because
the land was too high to grow crops. That project ended
some 13 years ago after a terrifying encounter with the
Shining Path guerillas.
Construction of the Old Temple at Chavin de Huantar may
have started about 1,200 B.C., Dr. Rick estimates. Building
at the site continued until about 600 or 700 A.D., and the
site remained a ceremonial center for several hundred more
years. Formal use ended between 200 and 300 A.D.
While Chavin was important, it never achieved the religious
status of Rome or Mecca, although it did function as a
pilgrimage center and an oracle, Dr. Rick says. He attributes
its decline to political processes and the rise of militarism.
"Authority was now political and military rather than
religious," he says.
In building the massive old and new temples, the Chavin
people demonstrated engineering, organizational, artistic and
It was heavy engineering to divert the river Mosna around
the temple, and to build more than a mile of galleries, plus
vents and drains. "As much effort was put into building what
was underground at Chavin as the buildings themselves,"
says Dr. Rick.
Almost 100 years of excavations at Chavin have yielded no
major use of metal and no tools, Dr. Rick says. While there
likely was sacrifice, no direct evidence has turned up. "There
is reasonable evidence of both human and animal sacrifice,"
he adds, such as broken bones with evidence of cut marks
and burning. Breaker: Multi-media
Located deep inside the hill at the center of crossed tunnels,
the Lanzon, with its carvings of fanged monsters, must have
been the mystical core of the cult.
Dr. Rick gets excited as he describes how the priests could
have impressed initiates, high on San Pedro cactus, with
sound and light effects. The monster face could glow eerily
from light reflected through vents by way of polished mirrors
into the inner sanctum.
A sinister roar could intensify the experience. Archeologists
have discovered a drain close to the Lanzon, where water
diverted from the Huachecsa River, could be turned on to
cascade down and create the sound. "You're being set to
believe something," Dr. Rick says.
"We're beginning to understand the approach that early
priests took to reinforce their developing power and
establish authority. We're beginning to understand how they
used sound and light and psycho-active drugs," he
continues. "It was multi-media."
Unlike conservative or popular religions that try to preserve
the status quo, the Chavin cult was a radical movement
trying to establish a new order, Dr. Rick believes. "I think
Chavin functioned primarily for the benefit of religious
people who were trying to make themselves powerful."
Dr. Rick also suggests that these elaborate mysteries were
to some extent self-serving. "I tend to see a fair amount of
bamboozling _ they were trying to get people to buy into the
system and pass on resources."